Ron Silliman begins The New Sentence (1987) with this unimpeachable claim:
. . .if we look to that part of the world which is the poem, tracing the historical record of each critical attempt to articulate a poetics, a discursive account of what poetry might be, we find instead only metaphors, translations, tropes. That these models have a use should not be doubted--the relationships they bring to light, even when only casting shadows, can help guide our way through this terrain. Yet their value stands in direct relation to their provisionality, to the degree to which each paradigm is aware of itself as a translation of the real, inaccurate and incomplete.
Such a pragmatic perspective on the utility of "poetics" (of literary criticism in general) seems to me the most efficacious way of encouraging open-ended debate about all questions relating to a subject so thoroughly contingent as what properly constitutes the "literary" qualities of literature. (I especially like Silliman's reference to "that part of the world which is the poem," which correctly emphasizes that a poem is a phenomenon in the world, not a reflection on or of the world that somehow transcends or detours around the merely real. A text is an element of reality, not just an opportunity to discourse about it.) It is admirable that Silliman's first words warn against taking his own poetics as the last words on the subject, but as a critic he has firmly-held positions nonetheless and they are positions that, in my view, cast all those who would disagree with them not just as mistaken but as fundamentally bad people.
Silliman next locates his approach as a critic by identifying himself with other poet-critics such as Pound, Olson, and Creeley, who were themselves situated "warily midway between the New Critics" and the "anti-intellectualism" that New Criticism provoked among "other sectors of 'New American' poetry." Although it seems to me that Silliman's criticism, both in this book and on his blog, has much in common with the close reading of the New Criticism, he is very harsh here in his comments about it, characterizing it as a "positivist" approach encompassing "an empiricist claim to transcendent (and trans-historical) truth." But the New Critics did not view poems as "empirical" evidence (the text) that would lead to a claim to "transcendent" truth (the critic's interpretation.) This is, in fact, a wholly mistaken representation of the New Critics' project: New Criticism was "empirical" only in that it insisted readers attend to the perceptible structure and actual language of the text, and the only "transcendent truth" it implied was that reading a poem was not a search for transcendent truth. Indeed, the burden of New Criticism was exactly to convince readers to read rather than interrogate poems for their unitary "meaning."
Silliman makes his disdain for New Criticism (or at least the conception of "literature" he thinks it represents) even more blatant by comparing it to Stalinism:
Necessarily. . .a poetics must be concerned with the process by which writing is organized politically into literature. It is particularly disturbing when, under the New Critics as well as Stalin, this transformation is posed and explained as though it were objective and not related directly to ongoing and fluid social struggles.
Certainly the New Critics were attempting an "objective" form of reading in that they believed a poem could be approached as a work of art with discernible features that could be identified by paying close attention--"dispassionate" is perhaps the term that might justifiably be used to characterize the attitude of the New Critics' ideal reader. And they surely did not have any interest in "ongoing and fluid social struggles" (at least where the analysis of literature is concerned) and would never have accepted that "a poetics must be concerned with the process by which writing is organized politically into literature." Silliman, of course, believes they were a part of such organizing nevertheless (a retrograde part), and in the first several essays in The New Sentence he undertakes to establish that indeed poetics is finally about politics, poetry "a form of action," presumably on behalf of those "social struggles."
These first few essays are aggressively Marxist in their declarations about the place of poetry. In "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World," we are told that the transparency of language we encounter in much ordinary communication is part of "a greater transformation which has occurred over the past several centuries: the subjection of writing (and, through writing, language) to the social dynamics of capitalism."
Words not only find themselves attached to commodities, they become commodities and, as such, take on the "mystical" and "mysterious character" Marx identified as the commodity fetish: torn from any tangible connection to their human makers, they appear instead as independent objects active in a universe of similar entities, a universe prior to, and outside, any agency by a perceiving Subject. A world whose inevitability invites acquiescence. Thus capitalism passes on its preferred reality through language itself to individual speakers. . . .
Because poetry "is not only the point of origin for all the language and narrative arts" but "returns us to the very social function of art as such," it is in the best position to combat this commodification. Indeed, "perhaps only due to its historical standing as the first of the language arts, poetry has yielded less to (and resisted more) this process of capitalist transformation." But it hasn't resisted enough. According to Silliman, "The social role of the poem places it in an important position to carry the class struggle for consciousness to the level of consciousness."
By recognizing itself as the philosophy of practice in language, poetry can work to search out the preconditions of a liberated language within the existing social fact.
Despite the dogmatic tone of these passages, the underlying analysis of public language vs. literary language seems pretty cogent to me. Extending the analysis to fiction, Silliman notes that "the most complete expression" of the "invisibility" of language "is perhaps in the genre of fictional realism, although it is hardly less pervasive in the presumed objectivity of daily journalism or the hypotactic logic of normative expository style." Further, "it is the disappearance of the word that lies at the heart of the invention of the illusion of realism and the breakdown of gestural poetic form." That calls for simplicity of style and an emphasis on narrative--both in fiction and journalism--reflect an impatience with language as medium and the dominance of "message" is undoubtedly true, and the proposition that poetry especially represents an opportunity to "liberate" language from these constraints is one I can easily accept. But I fail to see why it is necessary to lay the blame for the crudity of public language specifically on capitalism, as opposed to the general human reluctance to pay attention to subtlety and nuance and willingness to accept the "preferred reality" of authority. Capitalism will get no propping up from me, but I can't see that it has uniquely invoked these human limitations.
Much of the logic of Silliman's poetics (as well as, ultimately, his own poetry) depends on the assumptions he brings about the "role of the reader in the determination of a poem's ideological content" ("The Political Economy of Poetry"). Silliman contends there is no "genuine" version of a poem, only those versions experienced by a particular audience at a particular time:
What can be communicated through any literary production depends on which codes are shared with its audience. The potential contents of the text are only actualized according to their reception, which depends on the social composition of the receivers.
Again this is a defensible position, but again I fail to see that asserting reception is determined by "social composition" is to say anything very significant. At best it establishes that audiences and readers bring to the reception of poetry their life experiences and circumstances, but to make "social composition" into the kind of essentialized, metaphysical entity Marxists want it to be doesn't convert a mere sociological fact into a revelation. Similarly, to say that "context determines the actual, real-life consumption of the literary product, without which communication of a message (formal, substantive, ideological) cannot occur" seems to me little more than a truism, and belies the question whether "communication of a message" is the goal a poet ought to be setting for him/herself. It is the goal that Silliman is setting, although in his practice as a poet he does concentrate on the "formal" message, through which the substantive and ideological are finally expressed.
. . .To be continued.